As the crisis created by the spread of COVID-19 continues, the extreme differences in people’s responses have become ever more apparent. While our consumerist craving for amusements, entertainment, fun, and frolic have demanded re-opening tattoo parlors, beaches, and liquor stores (an essential service?), thousands of doctors, nurses, emergency responders, nursing home staff, and ordinary citizens have rushed to the aid of their fellow citizens, especially those in greatest need. Some at the cost of their lives. The quality of national and local leadership has also been revealed in frequently stark terms.
Today has traditionally been referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday. And for good reason. The gospels read at mass in all three years of the liturgical cycle focus on Jesus as the true shepherd, the real Shepherd of Israel. Today’s readings begin with Peter’s inaugural sermon on Pentecost according to
the Acts of the Apostles. They move to the beloved 23rd Psalm and then to the first letter ascribed to Peter, which is so strikingly paschal in tone and purpose — a characteristically impetuous exhortation to new Christians to be true and faithful followers of the Lord they profess to love, much as Peter himself was challenged at the very end of John’s Gospel.
Actually, both Peter’s sermon and the selection from the first epistle are a patchwork of texts from Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, stitched together to present a portrait of Christ as savior, particularly Isaiah 53:5: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.” The theme is repeated by Jeremiah and Ezekiel. It would have been familiar to anyone who was paying attention. At the end of the passage, the author significantly recalls Ezekiel 34: 6, “My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.”
The second reading is one of the first texts that clearly refers to the elders of the community as the shepherds of the flock [1 Peter 5:2-4]. Peter also makes clear that Christ is their model as the true shepherd. The passage ends with a curious phrase, “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.” For ‘guardian’ the Greek text has “episcopos,” which means ‘overseer,’ and, of course, is the root of our word ‘bishop.’ We have to be careful not to read too much back into a first century document. But today, it might repay some thoughtful consideration.
Each year, the gospels appointed to be read today are taken from the 10th chapter of the Gospel of John, although it is not the only source of the imagery of the good shepherd. But it is central to the Easter message, that Jesus, the true shepherd of the flock of Israel, gave his life for his sheep, so that not even one would be lost.
This year, the focus is on Jesus as the model shepherd and what that means for us. John multiples the images lest we mistake his intention. But here, Jesus also contrasts himself with other leaders in words that at first sight seem harsh: “All who came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them.” [John 10:8]
By way of comparison, in the Book of Jeremiah God promises, and this, surely is the point of the allusion in John’s gospel, “…I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, says the LORD” [Jer 23: 3-4].
Who are those “others” who came before Jesus? It is most likely a reference to the leaders of the people who thought mainly of their own safety and profit and in fact wound up collaborating with the Greek and Roman conquerors. But as St. Augustine would later point out, it means anyone whose pastoral care and leadership depart from the model Jesus has shown us in himself.
In the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day, the people probably knew more about sheep than the good citizens of Chicago do now. Jesus may not have known much more, humanly speaking, but animal husbandry is not the point. All the talk about shepherds and sheep is, in the end, a way of dealing with leadership. And the style of leadership Jesus proposes is not that of driving those we are responsible for ahead of us with a stick and dogs, using fear, intimidation, and excommunication to keep the flock in check and make them do as we want. Rather, the image Jesus presents, whether good shepherding technique or not, is good pastoral psychology: get out in front, proceed calmly, and don’t look back too often. But don’t get so far ahead that everyone loses sight of you.
There is a hint in these readings about what being a good disciple involves as well, although that is not the main point. Following Jesus does not mean being docile, nose-to-tail, unquestioningly ovine followers. It means imitating Christ. One of the greatest of the shepherds to follow in Christ’s footsteps, St. Gregory the Great, put it this way, not by chance in a homily the church selected for a reading in today’s divine office:
“Ask yourselves whether you belong to his flock, whether you know him, whether the light of his truth shines in your minds. I assure you it is not by faith that you will come to know him, but by love; not by mere conviction, but by action” [Homily on the Gospel of John, 14:3-6. PL 76, 1129-30].
I have no doubt that the names of the heroes who have responded so selflessly to the desperate need of their fellow citizens are written in golden letters in the Book of Life. We pray with Pope Gregory that by following Christ in love, they especially will “finally reach their grazing ground where all who follow him in simplicity of heart will feed on the green pastures of eternity.” For there, Gregory says, “the elect look on the face of God with unclouded vision and feast at the banquet of life for evermore,” the banquet, permit me to add, that is the wedding feast of the Lamb of God.